Giant Palm Found Hiding Under Madagascar Sun

John Dransfield/Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

A bizarre, 60-foot-tall palm topped by a display of hundreds of flowers has been discovered near a cashew plantation in Madagascar. When the flowers are at full bloom they drip nectar, luring hordes of insects and birds with their sweetness. Shortly after, the entire tree dies of exhaustion. It's these sorts of bizarre discoveries - still regularly cropping up even in this old world of ours - that keep me hopeful about our planet and its inexhaustible supply of mysteries.

The mysteries of Tahina spectabilis, as the new plant is known, extend into the species' academic footnotes. The botanist who described it, John Dransfield of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, UK, was at a loss to explain how the great palm came to exist on Madagascar, a large island about 250 miles off Africa, in the Indian Ocean. The plant's closest relatives are in the Middle East and Southeast Asia; it has no near relatives on Madagascar.

It's also something of a mystery how a giant palm with 15-foot fronds went undiscovered for so long on the island nation. Madagascar has been extensively deforested and turned over to cultivation. Much of what's left has long been combed over by biologists specifically looking for new, thrilling nuggets among its unique collection of plants and animals. (As Douglas Adams, of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame, poignantly described in Last Chance to See, a great little book about conservation.)

But perhaps the clearest indication of the palm's bizarreness is that it made it onto Slashdot - despite a total lack of electrical power, firmware upgrades, or Macintosh compatibility. In a related post, Slashdot suggests that the plant's impressive size makes it visible on Google Earth. Your dedicated Gist blogger was unable to verify this, but would love it if any readers find the location and post it in comments.

So just what do they mean by "impressive"? Here's another photo for some scale. The small mammals scurrying around the base of the palm are humans. The backlit triangle of foliage (resembling a shopworn Christmas tree) is the great flowering display of the palm, the rest of which sits somewhat more humbly below it.

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